Wealthy but benevolent leader of “geraniums” well-known for “City Beautiful” concept and for gifts of parks to San Diego
Late last week, Patty and I took a guided tour of the Marston House and its surrounding gardens, sited on the north end of Balboa Park. Tours are available 10 to 5, Friday through Sunday for $8 apiece. (Hours and prices have changed for the summer season, see the information below)
We took the tour of the over-one-hundred-year house and then walked the gardens – as all visitors do – on our own. The house tour took nearly an hour and it was worth it to get a glimpse into the lifestyle of one of San Diego’s early and more benevolent oligarchs – George Marston, his spouse Anna, and their children – four daughters and one son.
George Marston – you should know – was one of San Diego’s “leading” businessmen in the early 1900s. His opulent downtown department store at 5th and C streets was legendary, with its stunning display windows and fresh Julian flowers on the counters. With the first working elevator, it ruled the world of local department stores for decades – until the malls were built, beginning in the early Sixties. Eventually bought out by Broadway and then Macy’s, Marstons was THE place to shop – especially for the upper middle-class for over fifty years.
George White Marston had a civic and political side to him, as well. Over a hundred years ago, he was a leader of the “geraniums” in the war between the ruling oligarchs. On one side stood the “smokestacks” – the local powerbrokers who wanted to bring heavy industry to San Diego and expand the city in that traditional fashion. Their opponents, the “geraniums”, wished to preserve San Diego’s pristine landscapes and imagery, and who wanted the city to have less of the messy, dirty and cantankerous sorts of industry and workers that beset other major cities around the country.
“The smokestacks want to bring in more industry, and the geranium folk resist this at all costs. They say, ‘Let San Diego live as it always did, on tourists, on retired Navy pensionnaires, on celery, asparagus, and climate.'” (David Reid, quoting John Gunther, in Foreword to “Under the Perfect Sun“, by Mike Davis, Jim Miller, and Kelly Mayhew.)
George Marston, one of San Diego’s richest and most influential of men, had “humble” beginnings. He had arrived here from Wisconsin and was hired on as a clerk and general gofer for Alonzo Horton – the father of downtown, and one of San Diego’s first major developers. Marston gradually became the city’s largest dry-goods merchant. He ran for mayor twice – unsuccessfully, but had a vision of a “City Beautiful” that became a blueprint for generations of San Diegans, and whose donations of land substantially created the greens that modern day residents and tourists enjoy today. Marston was instrumental in developing Balboa Park, Presidio Park and it golf course, Torrey Pines State Park, and even the Anza-Borrego desert park.
By time Marston built his four-story Tudor-style house on what was to become Balboa Park, he was an accomplished oligarch. The last living relative to live in it – daughter Mary – handed it over to the City of San Diego while she was in her nineties. Now, SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization) runs and maintains it. One of the tour guides actually lives on the fourth floor.
Our young tour guide, Diana, was very knowledgeable about the house and the traditional, mainstream stories about the Marston family, giving us plenty of details as we followed her room to room, floor to floor. There is a basement which Diana called the first floor, but it’s off limits. We did tour every room on the two floors above it, what I call the first main floor- and all the bedrooms on the second main floor. The third floor was originally for the servants, “the help” as the Marstons called them, and is also not on the tour.
The 1905 house, originally designed as a English Tudor model by Irving Gill and William Hebbard, with 8500 square feet, originally cost the Marstons $20,000. It has 16 to 19 rooms – depending on what rooms you count. We entered the foray and stepped into the rooms at the front of the house, all the while being told by our guide to notice the wide, airy, and sun-lit hallways which were throughout the house – except for the servants’ areas.
The first rooms were George’s study on the left and Anna’s music room on the right – she was an accomplished pianist. There are many great built-in bookcases, drawers and cabinets throughout the house, and each room had its share. Maps, for instance, had their drawer, and Anna’s music had theirs. Yet, there were very few pieces of original furniture, paintings, or artifacts from the Marston’s home, with the rooms being stocked with antiques from that era. There were, however, pieces of furniture designed by Gustav Stickley, who was a prominent manufacturer of furniture of the arts and crafts style (he didn’t use glue or nails in his furniture).
The house had hot and cold running water – with a type of solar panel on the roof; it had its own electrical generator and was able to provide electricity to the rest of the houses on that primo residential block; plus it had a gravity-heating system. Many of the attributes of the house were cutting edge for the day. Some were so innovative they should be included in modern homes – but are not. Many of the windows were double-layered with the screens on the inside. This way the screens are kept clean during the winter and colder months.
Anna’s music room led into the main living-room. “It wasn’t a parlor,” our guide said, but “a room for the living,” she laughed, as parlors in those days had become known for laying out the dead. The room did have a huge fireplace – but itself was not grandiose. A built-in bench with leather seats commanded the hallway, and was situated so it had a full view of the fireplace.
Down the hall, our guide said, was the most important room of the house – the dining room. Diana told us that Marston had been head of the committee that oversaw the 1915 Pacific-California Exposition in Balboa Park. And it was the dining room where all the bigwigs gathered for their meetings.
I could imagine carriages pulling up at the entryway outside. A few of them horseless, making lots of noise. Men with suits and top hats getting out, lighting their cigars, and boisterously swaggering down the hallway to the dining room, where a roaring fire was going, servants bustling about serving the guests. Plans and maps were sprawled out on the large, wooden table.
The committee men did have issues to discuss. One of the issues was the placement of the Exposition itself. Most members of the committee of honchos and civic boosters had assumed that the Exposition would be along 6th Avenue at the west end of the park. But old man John D. Spreckles, the one man who ruled over and dominated San Diego in those days, wanted it to be out on the uncleared, chaparral covered mesa to the east. Spreckles and his partners had land holdings out there and would benefit greatly if the Exposition was built where they were pointing. Spreckles also wanted to build spurs of his electric trolley out onto that great mesa – what was to become North Park and mid-city. In the end, Spreckles – as we now can see – got his way. The story is that he refused to give the committee its needed funds unless the Exposition was built where he wanted it. Spreckles in the end became the principal individual sponsor of the Exposition – which in a clever way – was the City’s first national advertising campaign.
Just then our guide, Diana, spoke – we were moving again – and my flashback to the old days popped. We moved into the very next room, a elongated room parallel to the dining-room with its own long, wooden table. This was the “butler’s pantry” as Diana described. It was where the butlers would “plate the food” and it also acted as a buffer to the noises coming from the kitchen.
Diana told us, upon my questioning, that the Marstons had two full-time butlers. The Marstons were so well-off, that they could afford to house much of their own staff, who lived up on the 4th floor (really third). Further, “the help” had their own stairwell from the kitchen area all the way to the other floors. Besides the butlers, they had one cook and one maid. They also had a care-taker who lived above the Carriage House (the current tourist shop and check-in for tours). And they must have had several gardeners to take care of the huge spread of plants that surrounded the house.
Up on a wall in this butler’s pantry was a box that was the terminus for all the servant bells throughout the house. If one of the Marstons ran a bell, the box would indicate which room the bell came from. How fancy, how convenient, how ruling class, I thought. Our guide also had us look at the lower quality of everything in the servants’ areas – the wood, the paint, lack of extras, narrower hallways and steps.
Definitely having so many servants back then was an extreme form of the lifestyles of the rich and famous of San Diego’s turn of the century. I started to imagine the kitchen and adjoining room just bustling around with servants, the uniformed butlers, the cook all in white, the maid eating her dinner at a small table. All chatting away – until, of course Mrs. Marston, or one of the daughters walked in.
“Didya just hear,” one butler whispered loudly, “what ol’ man Spreckles just said?”
“Nah,” replied the maid, soup in her mouth.
“He wants to outlaw public speaking throughout all of downtown!” the harsh whisper grew louder. “Can you imagine?!” the butler said, getting red in the face, either from the heat or his excitement.
“Horse manure!” said the other butler, not missing a step in moving through the room. The first one started to say something, but the cook interrupted him with a loud “shssss!”
A buzzer went off, interrupting all of them. It was one of the bells from the box. The butler knew it was master Arthur upstairs, he wanted his nightly brandy.
I returned to the tour. Moving into the kitchen, we chuckled at the old ice box. Yet the stove looked quiet modern (it was not the original but a very similar one). It had 6 burners, Diana said, two ovens, a bread-warmer and one boiler. The kitchen sink and its drain boards appeared to be much less than what most people have today, although the wood counters lifted up so you could get to the space below. On the floor was an old crock pot – a slow cooker, heated by coal.
Next to the stove was the walk-in pantry, what our guide called “a California cooler”. This was a cooler and a pantry, designed to keep food fresh. It faced to the west to get the cool, bay breeze, which was ushered in by a vent at floor level, with an opening at the top of the exterior wall allowing the warmer air to flow out. Normally, it was 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the house. Now, here’s an innovation that should be in modern homes, I thought.
Making our way around the first floor, we finally came to the sewing room where an old, treadle-style Singer sewing machine commandeered the window. The Marstons were so wealthy, our guide said, that they could afford a seamstress to come by weekly and make certain all the Marstons’ clothes were mended.
We were ready to mount the stairs and go up to the bedroom floor. But first our guide had us notice how wide and low-cut the carpeted stairs were. These stairs certainly made it easy to traverse the floors. These were the family and guests stairs. The servant ones were much narrower.
After cruising upstairs, we went through each of the kids’ bedrooms and the master bedroom. By time the Marstons had completed the house and had moved in, most of the kids were fairly grown. Each of their bedrooms were adjacent to a bath and each had a walk-in closet, and family members could go room to room without entering the hall way. One daughter had an attached “sleeping porch” with a view of the garden. Arthur, the only son, had the only shower. One bedroom had been abandoned and it had been made into a sitting room with its own fireplace, where the sisters entertained. As the guide explained, most of the furniture and nicknacks accumulated by SOHO remained downstairs, so the upstairs rooms were a little bare.
As we overlooked the garden from upstairs, Diana told us that the garden had been a gift from George to Anna for their 50th wedding anniversary. Over 400 people came by that day to help the couple celebrate. As we rounded through the rooms, the street that ran in front was in view. The guide told us George Marston was so neighborly – and influential -, that both his doctor and lawyer lived on it. To this day, some Marstons still live on the street.
This just goes to show you how well the Marstons were known and how influential they were. Despite being part of San Diego’s local ruling class, George Marston was one of the more benevolent and liberal ones. All this was expressed as his love for gardens was part of his great scheme for the city at large.
During one of the periodic recessions that gripped San Diego in the late years of the 1800’s and the early years of 1900, Marston was one of the first of the elite visionaries to realize:
San Diego had preserved the potential – which rapidly industrializing Los Angeles was squandering – to someday shape itself into a City Beautiful. Marston, a tougher businessman than usually depicted, recognized that landscape capital was perhaps San Diego’s chief comparative advantage. (Mike Davis, The Next Little Dollar, pg.31.)
A year after his house was built, Marston brought John Nolen, “the famed Eastern landscape architect”, out to the West Coast to draw up a green urban design for the area. In his 1909 “city beautiful” plan, Nolen praised San Diego’s climate, scenery, and geographic position in a scheme that provided a blueprint for generations of “geraniums”.
Besides the beautification of Balboa Park, Marston would move on and hand over other properties of his – what’s now Presidio Park and the adjoining golf course. He had acquired acres of land out in the desert – he handed that over for Anza-Borrego Park. More acres handed over in what’s Torrey Pines State Park.
Marston never gave up on San Diego and held fast to his visions through the years of bust. When the economy began improving in the early years of the 20th century, there were rumblings among the new elites against the old master Spreckles.
Spreckles, heir to his father’s Hawaiian sugar empire, ruled his own ledger of San Diego utilities and property holdings while he sat in San Francisco- until 1906 when he moved to our city after the earthquake. His German father, Claus, – the “Sugar King” – had been the third richest man in California history, one “of San Francisco’s true Gilded Age robber barons.” In time, John D. went on to become San Diego’s own top robber baron, and had “conquered San Diego like a Prussian general”. He came to own the coal wharf, a bank, many prime properties including the entire south side of Broadway from Sixth to the waterfront, both the Union and the Tribune, a water company, the electric trolley that came to criss-cross much of the the grand mesa northeast of downtown, and was able to control and direct the economic growth of the city. By 1900, Spreckles paid fully 10% of the entire county’s property tax assessment. (Davis, pgs. 28-31.)
It was Spreckles who sparked the free speech fight in 1912, because he was the one who convinced the city fathers to ban public speaking throughout most of downtown. Spreckles sponsored an unofficial reign of terror against those union activists and IWW members who dared to oppose the ban. Marston did come out against this vicious clamp down led by Spreckles, and he took this stand among the group of Progressives – led by other more business leaders.
So, a faction of the ruling elites began to rebel against the Spreckles’ corruption and dominance. Ed Fletcher, the region’s largest citrus packer, and E.W. Scripps, the publisher of the San Diego Sun newspaper, came together under the Progressive banner. Scripps championed the cause of labor through his Sun, and supported the free speech fighters, who were attacked by Spreckles’ twin papers. Fletcher, Scripps (a robber baron in his own right) and Edgar Luce joined up with Marston in forming this challenge to the old rule, and Fletcher, Marston, and Luce were the main delegates in 1907 representing the San Diego Progressives in a state-wide league. Their goal: to resist the old McKinley-aligned Republican Party and Spreckles’ empire in San Diego.
The first time Marston ran for mayor was in 1913, and he had the support of the Progressives and some of the Socialists. He lost then, and he lost again four years later, but the more positive aspects of his “vision of developing landscape capital” and of encouraging light, non-polluting industries were kept alive.
One problem that George Marston had politically was with the San Diego labor community. Although often Marston spoke approvingly of labor and he had a decent record of being employer, he had used non-union workers to cut costs on the construction of his new department store which opened in 1911. Union leaders also worried what exactly was the role of labor in Marston’s “city beautiful”.
So in 1913, even though Marston had the support of the new elites, Fletcher, Luce, Scripps, and some of the Socialists, the working class split its vote. And a local capitalist who promised growth and jobs won by a small margin. When he ran again in 1917, Marston had the support of both Spreckles’ Union and Scripps’ Sun. But he was cast as the leader of the geraniums who didn’t want jobs, and went down to defeat. (Davis, pgs. 42-43.)
Yet with time this revolt of the younger, newer urban business elite had only minor success. And Spreckles managed to hold on to his power, and continued to reign over the city until he died in 1926.
It was one faction fighting another, the elites squabbling over which faction within the class that governed would predominate. Fletcher became the County’s first mega-developer, as he knew where the train tracks would be laid. He bought up the key watershed area of north county and cashed in big time. Scripps went on to develop his extensive landholdings as well in the Torrey Pines-Miramar area. And George Marston …. my thoughts trailed off.
Diana, our guide, was talking again. The last living relative to occupy the house, she said, was Mary – one of the daughters. She lived there until 1986. Worried about the future of her family’s great house, Mary went to the City and made an offer they couldn’t refuse. Take care of the house – its maintenance and repairs from now on, she said, and when I die, I’ll donate it to the City as long as it’s open to the public. What a deal! – the city must have thought. Mary was then 95 years old and she wasn’t expected to be around for much longer. So, of course, the city went for it. Mary got the last laugh, our guide explained, as Mary lived another 13 years, all the way to the age of 108.
We were led into the master bedroom – which had just recently returned to its original color, a very, very pale green. The room had a balcony, which Diana said was George’s favorite place in the house. Perhaps it was there, on that balcony, where he plotted his gardens, parks, and his green, open spaces.
The tour seemed to be winding down, so I once again focused on following our guide. We were walking down the main hallway upstairs, noticing the rounded corners, the quality of the woodwork. One interesting thing was that every closet had a window that could open to the hallway. With no air conditioning, this helped the ventilation and the air flow said our guide, and the mildew, muttered Patty.
As we prepared to go downstairs, we were led to what our guide called “the west wing” – an area separated from the family wing of the house. It held another bedroom, a bathroom, a small room, the servants’ stairwell, more narrow hallways and less lighting. We couldn’t go to the “fourth floor” – off limits for tours. It contained a large living space, and three chamber rooms for the servants and for that one daughter who wished to rise above it all.
The tour was over, and we thanked our guide. Once outside, we proceeded directly to the north end of the estate that contained the main garden. Lots of roses with delicious aromas, one ten foot tall artichoke plant, waist-high hedges making lines through Marston’s gift to his wife. Known as “Geranium George”, Marston was an amateur horticulturalist, and his love of the outdoors and nature is shown by the carefully-laid out and cultivated plots.
It was all very beautiful and expertly planned out. Grass rectangles, roses carefully pruned, closely-clipped hedges guiding one about. At the very north end of the estate, we found a gazebo-type structure that had a great view down what was called the Marston Hill, through bush, pine trees and cacti. We could also see other trails bending down the hill and they beckoned us.
So, we set out and left the main garden trail, guiding ourselves down the verdant hill to an area covered with various foliage, brush, plants growing wildly, without pruning or maintenance and towards a noisy State Route 163. As we moved around the hill we discovered old, abandoned stone stairways and walls. Forgotten by the gardeners, these edifices are silent reminders of a past that is not trimmed for us. I felt we were in England, discovering some lord’s lost world.
One of these lost worlds, I thought, was the truth behind Marston. After his electoral defeats prior to World War One, he “remained San Diego’s geranium emeritus”, and continued to be “a fount of civic wisdom and humane values for nearly two more decades,” surviving the corrupting roaring twenties. He supported his daughter who was a founding member of the Women’s International Strike for Peace, and he was one of the only millionaires who supported the candidacy of Norman Thomas, the Socialist candidate for president in 1932. (Davis, pgs. 49-50.)
George Marston’s legacy did live on. Mayor Bacon, an ally of Marston’s, in 1921 invited John Nolen – the east coast landscaper – back to town in order to update his plan. Nolen then urged the preservation of Old Town, the development of a city center and airport along the harbor, and a scenic parkway through the cow farms of Mission Valley. San Diego officially adopted this new Nolen Plan in 1926. The rest is history, as they say.
Filled with the beauty of the house and the estate, we filtered back to the year 2011, made our way out of the Marston aura, across the Marston greens – all the while totally ignored by a small, munching rabbit -, through the Marston park called Balboa, and home to the simple life. The only servants we have are our cats – yet when the bells ring, it is us who end up serving them. Such is the life of the peasants.
Enjoy the photo gallery below. Click on the images to view larger versions with descriptions.